Robert Gauss to Felix Klein - September 3, 1912

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Robert Gauss to Felix Klein - September 3, 1912
by Robert Gauss

This letter is part of the Charles Henry Gauss Family Papers[1] collection. Transcribed to softcopy by Susan D. Chambless, 1999.

Denver, Colorado, September 3, 1912.

Professor Doctor Felix Klein, Göttingen, Germany.

My dear Dr. Klein:

I am a grandson of Carl Friedrich Gauss. My father was Eugene Gauss who was the eldest son of the mathematician by his second wife. Upon several occasions I corresponded with Professor Brendell, at that time in Göttingen, in regard to the preparation of the biography of my grandfather. Since he left Göttingen - which I believe he did about five years ago - I have heard but little concerning the progress of work on the biography; but from something I heard several months ago, I am led to believe that it is approaching completion.

I believe you are the head of the committee of scientific men who have been engaged in publishing a complete edition of my grandfather's works. So I take the liberty of addressing you concerning a matter of great interest to the American descendants of Carl Friedrich Gauss, and particularly to the children and grandchildren of Eugene Gauss. I hope this will reach you in time to enable you, if you see proper to do so, to give the information I shall impart its proper place in my grandfather's biography. I assume that in that biography, you will say something about his children, if not about his later descendants.

In a little work by Professor R. Kistner, entitled "Deutsche Physiker und Chemiker" published in München, I notice a brief sketch of my grandfather's life, which contains a reference to my father, Eugene Gauss, in the following words:

"Der Tod der zweiten Frau (1831), Zerwürfnisse mit dem missratenen Sohne Eugen machten Gauss schwere Sorgen."

Little is known in Germany about the two sons of Carl Friedrich Gauss who emigrated to this country and the German speaking world knows nothing of my father except that when he was about nineteen years old he quarreled with his father and left Göttingen to make his home in the United States. In that way he disappeared, as it were, in darkness. Hence it is I think the duty of one of his children, or of some one else who knew him in this country, to lift that veil of darkness and show what his life in America really was.

I hope you will be able to find a little space in the biography of my grandfather in which to show the German reading public that the son referred to by Professor Kistner as "missratenen" was not a failure. This would be more than just to his memory, as well as pleasing to his children and all the other descendants of Carl Friedrich Gauss.

From what I am about to state you will see that the need of an explanation of this kind was brought forcibly to my attention only a short time ago. I am sure that you know by reputation, if not personally, Mr. George Bruce Halsted, who has given much attention to the study of Non-Euclidean Geometry, a branch of mathematics in which you have taken great interest. If I am correct in this, you are aware that he has been a great champion of John Bolyai. For some reason this has developed in him a spirit of antagonism to my grandfather and led him into a very unjust attack upon him. In the January number for this year of "The American Mathematical Monthly" he had an article in which he declared that John Bolyai was a victim of "the meanness of Gauss". To this he added that one of Gauss' own sons also was a victim of this "meanness", and that he had spent his life an exile in the State of Colorado.

Professor Florian Cajori of Colorado Springs in this State, wrote me after reading Professor Halsted's article. He knew that the reference could only be to Eugene Gauss, my father. It happened that Professor Halsted at the time his article appeared was connected with the State Normal School in Greeley, Colorado. Greeley is a town about fifty miles north of Denver. I promptly replied to Professor Cajori that my father was in no sense an exile from his home in Göttingen, and furthermore, that he had never been in the State of Colorado.

I need not go into this matter further in this letter, for it is all fully explained in my correspondence with Professor Cajori; and I enclose herewith a copy of that correspondence. It contains copies of the letters received from Professor Cajori, and my answers to them. If you will read the enclosed correspondence you will see that I have given a full account of my father's life after he left Göttingen up to the time that he settled in St. Charles, Missouri, where he married and where all of his children were born. My mother's maiden name was Henrietta Fawcett. she was a native of the United States. The enclosed letters also show the circumstances under which my father left Göttingen, and I think they are a complete vindication of my grandfather against the charge made by Halsted that he had "meanly" treated my father. This material will be of use to you in preparing the statement I hope you will embody in the biography of my grandfather concerning my father's career. But you need a little more. You need a statement of what his life was after he settled in St. Charles, Missouri, and how he was looked upon by the people among whom he lived. Only by this means can it be shown that the charge that he turned out a failure or "went wrong" (miszratenen) was not true.

I am fully convinced that my father inherited more of his father's mathematical talent and his intellectual qualities in general than any of the other sons. Although he left Göttingen before he had completed his course of studies, he was nevertheless a well educated man, with very pronounced intellectual tastes. After settling in the town of St. Charles, in the State of Missouri, my father went into business. During the greater part of his residence there he was engaged in the lumber trade. Under the circumstances his intellectual life was almost entirely distinct from his business vocation. Yet he was known throughout the community as a man of superior education and intellectual qualities. He collected a good private library and to a large extent his life was spent among his books. Unfortunately - because he had distinctly a mathematical mind - his studies did not take him into the field of the exact sciences.

A few years after making his home in St. Charles he became deeply interested in the subject of religion. He became a member of the Presbyterian Church, and his private library was to a large extent one which a theologian might have collected, so many were the works on religious and theological subjects.

Whatever fondness for the gay life of a Göttingen student he may have had in his young days, his life in America was almost ascetic in its freedom from anything like dissipation. When he first made his home in St. Charles, Missouri, he was about thirty years of age, and it was only a few years later that he became interested in the subject of religion. So it could not have been said of him: "Junge sündet und Alte Betschwestern". He was still a young man when he turned his attention to religion. Thereafter he lived in strict conformity to the precepts of the Presbyterian Church and he was held in high esteem by all who know him. His reputation was that of a man of the strictest business and personal integrity and his life was a model of moral conduct and devotion to the discharge of duty.

In 1885 he removed from St. Charles to a farm which he purchased in the central part of the State of Missouri, near the town of Columbia. He continued to reside there until his death on July 4, 1896. He was born July 29, 1811. during the latter part of his life he was almost totally blind, and on that account he was unable to read. While in that condition and a little over eighty years of age, he made a calculation of what one dollar would amount to at compound interest at six per cent in the space of six thousand years. The mathematical memory which this calculation involved was so remarkable that Professor Florian Cajori, of whom I have already spoken, made special comment upon it in an article which appeared in a journal called "Science" as follows:

"Carl Friedrich Gauss and His Children", in Science, N. S., Vol. IX., 1899, pp. 697-704.

To say the least his memory must have been wonderfully tenacious to make this calculation mentally, retaining in his mind the long array of figures which the result called for. How long he was employed in amusing himself with this calculation, I do not know, for I left home and removed to Colorado long before that time. But during the whole process his memory obtained no other aid than that three or four times he had one of my brothers make a memorandum, which I suppose was used as a kind of resting-place in the calculation.

I am very sure that Professor Cajori sent you a copy of the article printed in "Science" to which I have just referred, and that it probably may be found among papers in Göttingen pertaining to my grandfather. If, however, that copy can not be found, and the Göttingen library contains no copies of the magazine (Science) I shall endeavor to procure you a copy; for I think it would be of interest to you to possess the information it contains concerning my father's intellectual qualities.

I believe that the information contained in the enclosed correspondence with professor Cajori, and what I have related concerning my father's manner of life after he made his home in St. Charles, Missouri, will supply you with all the material needed for a brief biography, which you are about to publish. I shall be greatly indebted to you if you will do this justice to my father's memory.

I should not close this part of my letter without saying something about my father's brother William, who also came to the United States. He left Germany entirely with the consent of his father, about 1837. Shortly after his departure from the Fatherland he married a niece of Bessel, the great astronomer. He had made a special study of agriculture because he expected to engage in that industry in this country.. He first settled in St. Charles County, Missouri, which is the same county in which the town of St. Charles is situated. That, however, was several years before my father settled in that town. My uncle remained in St. Charles county only a short time and then removed to the vicinity of a town named Glasgow, in the central part of Missouri. He continued to reside in that neighborhood for about fifteen years, where most of his children were born. In 1855 he removed to St. Louis, Missouri, and engaged in business. He continued to live in that city until 1879, in which year he died. He became one of the most prominent business men in St. Louis and when he died, left a very considerable estate. He was highly esteemed as a man of ability and the strictest business and personal integrity. There was a very warm attachment between him and his father, as may be seen by the letters which they exchanged. My uncle had eight children, one of whom died in infancy and two of them after reaching maturity. His oldest son, named Carl Friedrich, is now living in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, where he is a leading and exceptionally wealthy business man. another son, William T. Gauss, lives in Colorado Springs in the State of Colorado, and I think that you have had with him some correspondence. My father also had eight children, two of whom died in infancy and one after reaching maturity. Four sons, of whom I am one, and a daughter, are still living.

Permit me now to discuss briefly another feature of the biography of my grandfather. It is one which I think will be of special interest to persons who know his career, but who are not themselves mathematicians.

When they read the lives of men like Goethe, Schiller, Humboldt, Bismarck and even Kant, people of ordinary intelligence may form some idea of what existence meant for those great men, and what lessons their lives convey to humanity. But how shall an ordinary man who is not a mathematician draw inspiration for a philosophy of life or an understanding of life's meaning and purpose from the career of one whose time was given almost exclusively to the study of so exact a science as mathematics? I am reminded in this connection of something that Lotze said in his introduction to his "Microcosmus", and I take the liberty of copying it here from an English translation, as follows:

"If the object of all human investigation were but to produce in cognition a reflection of the world as it exists, of what value would be all its labour and pains, which could result only in vain repetition, in an imitation within the soul of that which exists without it? What significance could there be in this barren rehearsal - what should oblige thinking minds to be mere mirrors of that which does not think, unless the discovery of truth were in all cases likewise the production of some good, valuable enough to justify the pains expended in attaining it? The individual, ensnared by that division of intellectual labour that inevitably results from the widening compass of knowledge, may at times forget the connection of his narrow sphere of work with the great ends of human life; it may at times seem to him as though the furtherance of knowledge for the sake of knowledge were an intelligible and worthy aim or human effort. But all his endeavors have in the last resort but this one meaning, that they, in connection with those of countless others, should combine to trace an image of the world from which we may learn what we have to reverence as the true significance of existence, what we have to do and what to hope."

What answer does my grandfather's philosophy of life give to the inquiry which is embodied in the closing words of this quotation from Lotze? I have personally a fairly clear understanding of what that answer is, but I venture to say that this can not be said of the general public or of a majority even among those people who have some knowledge of his rank and place in the history of science.

I hope you will not think me guilty of intrusion in suggesting that a somewhat elaborate discussion of my grandfather's views of the problems of life, of government, of religion, of the social order and of history would be of great interest. It might show what in his opinion, we have, to use the words of Lotze, "to reverence as the true significance of existence, what we have to do and what to hope".

I should have said that Professor Cajori wrote an answer to Halsted's attack upon my grandfather in relation to Bolyai and conclusively refuted it. In that article he also made some reference to my father and to my father's brother William, who also, as I have said, came to the United States and who died in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1879. This article by Professor Cajori appeared in the August number, this year, of "The Popular Science monthly", and I shall take great pleasure in sending you a copy of it. This, you will understand, is not the article referred to above and which appeared in "Science", but in case you have not, I shall try to procure one for you.

With the greatest respect, Yours most sincerely, Robert Gauss

P. S. The names and the present places of residence of the grandchildren of Carl Friedrich Gauss, who were born in the United States and are now living, are as follows:

The children of Eugene Gauss: Charles Henry Gauss, St. Charles, Missouri; Robert Gauss, Denver, Colorado; Albert F. Gauss, Los Angeles, California.

The children of William Gauss: Charles Friedrich Gauss, St. Louis, Missouri; Oscar W. Gauss, Greeley, Colorado; Mary Gauss, St. Louis, Missouri; William T. Gauss, Colorado Springs, Colorado; Joseph Gauss, St. Louis, Missouri.

The only one of the great-grandchildren of Carl Friedrich Gauss born in the United States, who has ever visited Germany is Helen W. Gauss, daughter of William T. Gauss of Colorado Springs, Colorado. while in Germany last year she was present at the dedication of the Gauss tower on the Hohenhagen.